Saturday, 26 May 2018

The Oasesbox irrigation system

A few months ago I was kindly given a set of "Oasesboxes" for review, and now I am putting it into action.

The Oasesbox self-watering planter system is one that I would describe a semi-hydroponic. This is how it works:

The basis of the system is a stout square plastic container (they come in green, grey, black or terracotta colours) which acts as a water reservoir, holding up to 15 litres of water.

Into the container sits a shallow soil / compost tray with a deep cone-shaped funnel in the centre.

The bottom of the cone fits quite snugly over a boss in the base of the reservoir, so that compost does not fall into the water, but water can seep upwards into the compost through capillary action.

The tray and funnel are filled with soil, and your chosen plant is planted into it. Water is added to the reservoir via any of the holes at the top of the sides the reservoir. The plant's roots then grow downwards to the water, guided by the smooth tapering surface of the funnel. Allegedly it can be as much as four weeks before more water needs to be added, but I'm sure the rate of consumption depends on the type of plant being grown. I have put a Cayenne chilli plant in my first one, and the next one will hold a tomato plant.

The design of the containers is such that they can easily be slotted together in various configurations.

I have joined my three together for this photo, but I think I will actually use them separately.

I think the most difficult aspect of using this system will be judging how much water each plant should have. The kit's instructions give some general guidelines, but I suspect it will be just a case of trial and error. It's quite difficult to see how much water there is in the reservoir - maybe they should be manufactured at least partially in transparent material? In the kit's instruction manual there is a page marked out to indicate filling levels. You are supposed to paste this paper page onto 1mm cardboard and cut it into strips which you then use like a dipstick to see what the water level in the container is! This seems far too rudimentary to me, and I'm not sure how well it will work.

Anyway, "the proof of the pudding is in the eating" as they say, so it will be interesting to see how the Oasesbox system performs in comparison with my usual growing methods. I'm already thinking that if it works well one big advantage is that it uses a very small amount of compost. Modern commercial compost is not only expensive but also very often of poor quality (let's not mention the weedkiller contamination issue!), so the less of it I have to buy, the better. The big attraction though is the fact that the water in the reservoir should last for quite a while, making this product ideal for keeping plants properly hydrated even when you are away from home.

The triple pack of Oasesboxes is available from the company's online shop, priced at £44.99, and a single one is £19.99.

Disclosure: I was provided with the triple Oasesbox kit free of charge, for review purposes.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Planting Winter Squashes

Right! My Squash plants are fed up with being confined to their little pots, they're going in!

Over the last 10 days or so we have had a surprising (but welcome) amount of sunshine, and I have been tempted several times to plant out the squashes. It's a good job I didn't succumb to the temptation though, because the nights have been very chilly. The temperature went down to just over 3C one night last week. Luckily the forecast shows relatively mild nights (about 10C) for the next 10 days, so I think it will be OK to plant the squashes now. They have been outside for the last 4 nights without any adverse effects...

A few days ago I cleared my embryonic "Pumpkin Patch" up at the plot. I didn't have the energy or enthusiasm to dig it a thoroughly as the rest of the plot, but I did remove all the perennial weeds and raked the soil fairly smooth.

Into this area will go 2 x "Crown Prince", 2 x "Uchiki Kuri" and 2 x "Sweetmax".

Crown Prince (L), Uchiki Kuri (C), Sweetmax (R)

The soil here is very light and sandy. With the recent scarcity of rain it is very dry too - almost dusty. Although I have very little experience of growing squashes, I know that they like rich, moist soil, so a fair bit of preparatory work was necessary. I decided where I would position the plants and for each one I dug a large hole, about 30cm deep.

Into each hole I put two "tub-trugs"-worth of old compost, which filled the holes back to roughly the original ground level.

Having marked the centre of each hole with a stick, I covered the compost with the soil I had removed from the holes, building it up to make a raised mound a few centimetres tall. I will plant the squashes on the tops of the mounds. This is because I have read that squash plants really do not like to have wet stems. Their roots will hopefully be quick to search out the moisture in the compost down below.

I know it's difficult to make them out in the photo, but here are all six mounds, marked with sticks, all ready for planting.


I decided to risk planting some of the squashes, but in my usual cautious way, I planted only 3 and kept the others back, just in case the nights are still too cold for them.

Uchiki Kuri nearest, Crown Prince in the middle, and Sweetmax at the back.

Uchiki Kuri

Since I wanted to delay a few more days before planting the other 3 squashes, I potted them on into bigger pots, because I felt they might suffer if they remained any longer in the small ones. A bigger pot and some fresh compost will keep them in good condition for a while - though they are now beginning to grow very rapidly!

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Trying some unusual plants

Normally I grow fairly conventional plants - usually ones that we definitely like eating and would like to have lots of. However, I do occasionally branch out and try something different. I tried Yard-Long beans (failed miserably in cold wet Summer). I tried Cucumelons (we didn't enjoy the taste). I tried Tomatillos (got a huge crop, but felt the veg was a bit uninspiring). This year I am trying not one, but THREE types of veg that I have never grown before.

The first of these is the Chinese Artichoke, aka Crosnes. This plant produces a mass of small knobbly tubers, somewhat reminiscent of Oca. Wikipedia says rather pessimistically "While the plant is easy to grow, the tubers are small, convoluted, and indented, so they are considered very tedious and difficult to clean properly." Last Autumn a friend gave me a few small tubers and I stuck them in a 30cm pot, where they spent the Winter outdoors. In early Spring they sprouted and now look like this:

I think there are 3 separate plants there, though it is hard to be sure. I'm not likely to get much of a crop from such a small pot, so I will probably just "re-cycle" any tubers they produce this year, and grow them on in the hope of increasing my stock. I can't show you any tubers (for obvious reasons), so the best I can do is show you a close-up of the leaves. They look a bit like Nettles, I think.

Having tasted some of the tubers (courtesy of the donor friend), I can say that they are pleasantly nutty - a bit like a Water Chestnut - with a firm crunchy texture even when cooked. They are never likely to displace the potato in my growing-plan, but as a curiosity they have potential!

Newcomer No.2 is New Zealand Spinach, Tetragonia tetragonioides. I've mentioned this before, in the context of my Courtmoor plot. The couple who own the plot have told me that they used to grow this vegetable and liked it, but had crop failures last year and the year before. I assess then that I should be able to earn some Brownie Points if I can successfully raise some this year!

Tetragonia is not actually related to "proper" Spinach. It just looks a bit like it, and is used in similar ways. The plants supposedly grow into bushes about 3 feet tall, and you crop them by repeatedly picking off the tips of the shoots. It is frost-tender, so mustn't be planted too soon and will not last into the cold weather of Autumn. I'd better get shaping... I sowed 15 "seeds", but soon discovered that each one of these is actually a cluster of seeds which produces several little plants.

Once the little plants were big enough, I pricked them out into separate pots, in which they are now growing nicely.

I potted-up 18 plants, but there are lots more left, so I suspect I'll soon be offering them around amongst my gardening friends.

I have never tried New Zealand Spinach (in fact I don't think I've ever even seen it), but it sounds like a vegetable I would enjoy, so I'm hoping it will do well for me.

The final member of the trio is Huauzontle, Chenopodium nuttalliae, aka Aztec Broccoli, a member of the Amaranth family. Again, this is something quite unfamiliar to me, and it will be interesting to see how it performs. Until a friend gave me some seeds for this vegetable at an informal seed-swap, I had no knowledge of it at all, so I had to look it up. One good resource I found is the Real Seed Catalogue. They describe in detail how it is grown and cooked. Apparently you pick the tips of the flowering shoots, a bit like Purple Sprouting Broccoli. One attractive characteristic of this vegetable is that it holds its texture well when cooked, and doesn't go completely soft as Spinach does.

Aztec Broccoli is another Summer-only plant; one for sowing in late April or early May, and it will be killed off by the Autumn frosts. It must be a fast-growing plant though, because it can allegedly reach 5ft tall. I can't demonstrate this because mine has only recently germinated and is currently about an inch tall:

I had somehow expected the seedlings to be green, but I suppose I should have seen this clue on the Real Seeds website: "The leaves go red as nights cool, looking very pretty." It has been very cool at night here just recently, so maybe that's the reason...

Well, those are my experimental plants for this year. What are you growing that's different?

Monday, 21 May 2018


In gardening parlance the term "hardening-off" means to gradually acclimatise young plants to outdoor conditions, prior to planting out. The young plants are put outside initially for short periods, progressively getting longer, and they are brought indoors or under cover at night time. After a couple of weeks the plants are left outside throughout the full 24 hours - but possibly kept in their pots for a little while longer, so that they can still be brought inside in an emergency - for instance if a sudden cold snap comes along. If you don't do all this it's likely that your young plants may die, or at least not do well. Sudden exposure to conditions that are too hot for them, or too cold, or too windy is definitely not recommended!

Over the last month or so I have been applying this procedure to lots of plants.  I've found that one of the best places for hardening-off my young plants is just outside the glass doors that open out from our Living-Room into the garden. It gets lots of sun early in the day, but is shaded by early afternoon when the light is at its strongest. It also gets some benefit from the nearby coldframe, which provides some wind-protection on certain days.

Squashes, Cucumbers and Chillis

These squash plants are getting quite big now, and could really do with planting out, but the weather has just not been warm enough for this - especially the nights, during which the temperatures have been typically only 7C or 8C, and a couple of times recently as low as 3C or 4C. The current 10-day forecast looks better, so hopefully I'll be able to plant them in the next day or two.

Tomatoes are one of my staple crops, and I always take more trouble over them than with anything else, so I have been careful to give them the text-book treatment.

My tomato plants are not yet very big, but they are looking good.

With exposure to the outdoor conditions, particularly wind, tomato plants toughen-up and their stems become stronger. One way to judge whether a tomato has been properly hardened-off is to inspect the stem. It should be quite stout - not thin and leggy -and it should be a dark colour, not pale. The one in this next photo is "getting there", but not ready for planting out yet.

I think the tomatoes will be ready to go outdoors in their final containers by about the end of May or the first few days of June.

The same applies to my chillis. If you have been following my blog you will know that they got off to a bit of a shaky start, but have now recovered. Some of them have developed into pretty decent specimens now, if a little small for this stage of the year.

Until this last weekend, the chillis, along with the squashes, have been spending the nights indoors, while the tomatoes have had the use of the big coldframe. During the daytime most of them get lined-up next to the raised beds, which afford some shelter from the breezes.

One of the great benefits of being Retired is that you can be at home more often, which is a great boon when plants need moving around a lot, as they do during hardening-off time! When I was working I always had to guess what the weather was going to be like during the day, and position my little plants accordingly, whereas now I often move them around 3 or 4 times a day. There were often some anxious moments worrying about whether they would still be OK when I got home, but now I can just pop outside and quickly rescue them if they need it. Bliss!

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Two significant milestones

This week, I have passed two significant milestones on my new plot.

Firstly, I finished the digging (at long last!). The veg-patch now extends all the way to the Raspberry canes.

I plan to use that last patch of soil for growing some New Zealand Spinach, and some Dwarf French Beans, but neither of those is ready for planting yet.

The other milestone is the fact that I have harvested my first crop - a bunch of "French Breakfast" radishes. Small but very satisfying!

Coincidentally, on the same day I harvested those "French Breakfast" radishes from the Courtmoor plot I also got a few "Lada" from my own garden.

The plot is now practically full, and the veggies are beginning to fill out.

The Broad Bean plants, although not very big, are covered in flowers, so hopefully some pods will set before many more days have passed. My application of the "Growmore" fertiliser seems to have been pretty beneficial, since the yellowing of the leaves stopped soon after.

The potatoes, whilst healthy enough, are progressing quite slowly, probably because they are not getting enough water. I have been watering the whole plot with the hosepipe every few days for a couple of weeks now, but it's never enough, and we have only had one spell of decent rain.

There's one other thing I want to mention today. Honeysuckle. Though not part of the veg-patch I'm working on, this is too lovely to ignore. In the garden there are two huge Honeysuckle bushes, one of which is climbing up into a big tree next to the shed. The perfume of the flowers pervades everything!

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Casualties and a nice find

The brassicas on my Courtmoor plot have suffered a couple of casualties. Everyone can see that this is not a healthy plant!

You may recall that the purpose of the cardboard collar is to deter the Cabbage Root Fly from laying eggs on or near the plant's stem, at ground level. Well, it looks like I was too late. Both of the casualties were Kaibroc plants; the others seem unaffected. However, my cardboard collars are exonerated, because it is evident that the flies laid their eggs on these plants before they were planted-out, hence before the collars were deployed. Back in my own garden, my only spare of this type is similarly afflicted. Here you can see it in the foreground of the next photo, all pale, limp and sickly whilst the other plants (spare cabbages and Brussels Sprouts) behind it still look fine.

I conducted a Post Mortem. This is what I found:

You can see that the soil around the stem and roots of this seedling is swarming with little white grubs. These are the larvae of the Cabbage Root Fly.

When the larvae hatch they feed on the roots and stem of the brassica plant, stripping them bare, and causing sudden, irreversible collapse.

There is no way back from this. The only solution is to re-sow or re-plant. Since my only spare Kaibroc plant was evidently beyond hope, I filled the gaps up at the plot with other things - one cauliflower and one red cabbage - and I immediately sowed some more Kaibroc seeds. Kaibroc grows very quickly, so it is not too late for me to get a harvest before the Summer ends. I just hope that none of the other plants are infested, because I don't have many more spares.

Incidentally, one way of dealing with the Cabbage Root Fly is to apply nematodes to the planting area shortly before planting.

These will kill most of the grubs and/or the eggs. However, it can be an expensive option when you have to treat a big area. In the raised beds in my own garden, it is a viable solution, but not in the bigger, more open plot.

On a rather more cheerful note, I want now to describe the "nice find" mentioned in the title of this post. This is it:

Yep, Asparagus! Purely by chance, I spotted some spears poking up in amongst the weeds in one of the sadly neglected flower-beds. Look at the next photo and see how many Asparagus spears you can spot...

There seems to be about 4 or 5 plants, but they are very overgrown and the soil they are in is very dry because lots of quite big shrubs are competing for the moisture.

I mentioned the Asparagus to Rupert, the plot-owner, and he very kindly told me to help myself to it. I found 16 spears of useable size. This is what I brought home:

Now that I know these Asparagus plants exist, maybe I'll give them a bit of TLC and nurture them a bit. I'll start with weeding and watering...

Thursday, 17 May 2018

In praise of herbs

If a gardener with very little space available asked me what he / she should grow, I'd definitely say herbs. Herbs are expensive to buy and most shops only carry a very limited range of them. There's also the fact that what's on offer in the shops is frequently less than or more than you need, and you can certainly not buy just one Bay leaf, if that's what you need for a recipe! On the other hand, if you grow herbs yourself they are easy enough to cultivate, require very little space and (most importantly) taste so much better than their shop-bought equivalents because you pick them when you need them and use them at their peak of freshness.

Greek Oregano

Jane and I use lots of herbs in our cooking - in fact there is hardly a meal prepared in our kitchen that doesn't use herbs of some sort, though I'll admit we do use a lot of dried ones too. In my opinion some herbs are actually better - certainly different - when dried. Oregano is the best example of this, with Thyme a close second. With such a constant demand for herbs, I sometimes find it hard to maintain a steady supply, but over the years I have learned what we use most of, and have adjusted my planting to suit. In the Summer time we often eat salad-based meals and these usually call for loads of fresh herbs. For instance one of our all-time favourites is Tabbouleh, which needs masses of Mint and Parsley. An authentic Tabbouleh has only a small proportion of grains (usually Bulgur wheat) and about 75%+ of herbs. I'm not sure what a Middle-Eastern person would make of our version of this dish, but we certainly enjoy it, and as the years go by we tend to put a greater and greater amount of herbs in.

I find that Parsley is the most difficult herb of which to maintain an adequate quantity. In my dry sandy soil it runs to seed very quickly, and it also sometimes succumbs to Carrot Root Fly. This year I have adopted a new tactic: I broadcast-sowed a whole packet of Parsley seeds in the border where most of the fruit trees are. The germination rate seems to have been pretty good...

A mass of young Parsley seedlings

In the same border I have several clumps of Greek Oregano. As well as being used in cooking, these help to disguise the rather stark black plastic pots. Furthermore, when these plants flower, all the bees and butterflies for miles around flock to them!

Greek Oregano

In our house, Mint is also predominantly a Summer herb. The weak spindly stems which are all that can be produced on the mythical "sunny windowsill" in Winter have little appeal. We prefer the robust, vigorous growth the plants put on in May, June or July. You cut some stems and within days they have regenerated! The Moroccan Mint is our favourite, and it has a bit of a history too. Its ancestor was a little plant in a 7cm pot which I bought in a Farmers' Market many years ago. Since then it has been propagated via root-cuttings many many times and is still as good as ever.

Moroccan Mint

I have a few other types of Mint too, but they are mostly more for ornament than for culinary use. Like this variegated Pineapple Mint, for instance. It looks great but its smell and taste mean that it is not very versatile. OK as a garnish on a tropical fruit salad, I suppose...

This Black Pepper Mint is also quite striking to look at, with its very dark-coloured stems. Unfortunately this variety seems to go leggy very quickly, and I find it hard to keep it looking nice.

Another herb that I love is Winter Savory, although I do acknowledge that it is less versatile than many others. It has a very distinctive taste (though some would describe it as rather "medicinal"). It is the perfect partner for beans, especially Broad Beans, which is convenient, because (despite is name) it's at its best at the same time as the main harvest of Broad Beans.

Winter Savory

A herb of a much milder disposition is the Chive, the most diminutive member of the Allium family. Like so many other herbs, this one is incredibly easy to grow: it needs little space and has no special site or soil requirements. Its uses are many and varied. Its mild oniony flavour goes with many different things. We like it sprinkled uncooked as a garnish on top of a dish, (such as a tomato or potato salad) immediately before serving, but it is also good cooked, for instance in an omelette. Chives also have a big visual appeal, and everyone who grows them should really try to leave at least a few to flower, rather than cutting them all. Their modest height, coupled with their attractive mauve-pink blooms make them ideal candidates for edging a border.

Chives - in bud at present.

Returning to my original theme... one of the best things about growing herbs is the fact that with a few exceptions (e.g. Lovage), herbs are quite small plants, so they can easily be grown in small spaces. Many of them do well in pots and containers of one sort or another, or in that odd little space that is too small for anything else. If you are not already a herb devotee, I suggest you give them a go!